It was a toss-up this morning between this and Chicken Run for this week’s Film 2018 slot. Either way, I was in the mood for something lightweight and enjoyable with which to kick back and relax.
Not that The Secret of the Unicorn comes without controversy. It’s the product of two of the biggest film-makers in the world, Stephen Spielberg, who directed it and Peter Jackson, who produced it, it was produced using a combination of motion capture and CGI, and it freely adapts three of Herge’s Tintin books, being primarily the two-part ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’/’Red Rackham’s Treasure’, with a substantial dose of ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws’.
Now this is heavy nostalgia country for me. My first exposure to Tintin came in the early Sixties thanks to the Tele-Hachette and Belvision animated series, Herge’s Adventures of Tintin (I can hear the exact intonation of that announcement to this day!). This adapted (somewhat freely) several of the Tintin books into five minute episodes that would feature on BBC (pre-1 and 2) at 5.45pm, Monday to Friday, the last gasp of Children’s TV.
And the first of these I saw was ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws’, to be followed by, of course, ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’. What better choice of albums to adapt to entertain me personally?
There’s a universe of difference between the flat, limited animation of the TV series, which simplifies yet further Herge’s ligne clair style, and the heightened realism of the 2011 film, which rounds the characters up into three-dimensional form whilst retaining their cartoonish appearance. Where the serial, with its limited animation, avoids the detailed and realistic backgrounds that distinguished the albums, the film positively relishes it, particularly in the spectacular Bagghar chase scene.
But that’s where the controversy arises. Though the film was commercially successful, and was generally applauded, there were dissenting voices, none more loudly that in the Guardian who, in over a dozen different articles over less than ten days, slated the film unmercifully, accused it of raping Tintin (so, no over-reaction there) and basically forbade its audience to not only enjoy the film but to have a mind of their own about it, a tactic that failed with at least one person, who was pretty near determined to enjoy it out of sheer annoyance.
And enjoy it I did, for its own sake. I’m not blind to its flaws, nor to one unexpected one that’s a product of later events, but it’s a sunny, exciting, silly romp, and a fun spectacle that’s as near to Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and the Thompsons walking off the page and circling you.
I was late to the cinema when I saw it there, and missed the credits and a minute or so of the film, so I was not aware until buying the DVD that the story starts with a touching tribute: we meet Tintin in a marketplace, having his picture drawn by an artist, who gently asks if he has drawn him before: it is Herge himself producing a likeness that is the simplest of Herge drawings.
From there, though, the film spends most of its time developing its plot, often to the accompaniment of high-speed action. In that sense, the film is entirely ‘realistic’, relying for its implausibility on the story itself, and the characters, though like any other CGI film it enhances that ‘realism’. It takes a few moments to adjust to the sight of cartoon figures with solid bodies walking around, and the ‘realism’ of the world has been correspondingly adjusted towards a roundedness that incorporates detail and atmosphere into a plastic solidity, but once the trick is worked, we are in the film’s vision and ready to accelerate.
Basically, the plot is that boy journalist Tintin becomes suspicious when attempts are made to first buy, then steal, a miniature ship he buys at the market. This is the ‘Unicorn’, the treasure ship of Sir Francis Haddock, sink by Pirate Red Rackham. The secret it conceals, or they conceal for there are three identical copies, is the whereabouts of Sir Francis’s Treasure, and the clue is three identical scrolls, each concealed in the main mast that, when matched and held up to the light, give the lat. and long. of the Treasure.
Tintin has one, though it’s stolen from him by a compulsive pickpocket, the villain Sakharine (Rackham’s descendent), who has bought the former ancestral Haddock home, Marlinspike Hall, has a second, and the third is in the collection of Sheikh Omar ben Salaad of Bagghar, which is where ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ element comes in.
And so does Captain Haddock. Captain Archibald Haddock, that is, not that anyone ever uses the first name. Splendid old drunken Captain Haddock, joyously incarnated by Andy Serkis, with a Scottish accent that fits the character well. Awash with whiskey, rum, brandy and more, Haddock is the rightful heir to Markinspike and the Treasure, and the film’s comedic spine, and Serkis is brilliant in the part, coming close to overcoming the one fatal flaw in this version of Captain Haddock – the voice.
I’m sorry, I grew up on ‘Herge’s Adventures of Tintin’ and whilst I can accept almost anyone in the Tintin world sounding different, I cannot escape Captain Haddock’s voice from so long ago. If it isn’t Peter Hawkins’ drink-soaked crustiness, it isn’t real.
That’s the one thing the film cannot provide. There are other areas in which it can be criticised, the first being how frenetic it is. There’s always something going on and, in true serial fashion, the film constantly shoots from fast-paced confrontation to fast-paced confrontation. The Bagghar chase sequence is spectacular, being a frantic and panoramic race from the Sheikh’s palace on the heights through the crowded town to the docks, with the broken dam sending water surging through the background as a counterpoint. It’s great, but it’s too fast and has too much going on, and the same goes for all the action scenes: there’s little or no variation of pace once the film has got the bit between its teeth.
In between, there are slower moments but where these might be the opportunity for more reflective moments, in keeping with the originals, and with the heightened reality of things, they’re usually geared to the progression of the story, and the one occasion when they’re not, when everything seems lost and Tintin accepts defeat only for Haddock to come up with a pep-talk, you rather wish they hadn’t, because it’s nothing but shallow rah-rah-rah.
Of course, a lot of this is the fault of the script, which comes from Edgar Wright, Adam Cornish and… Stephen Moffat. Three hip, intelligent English writers, with a modern sensibility, two of whom with a string comedy back-up, and Moffat back when his ‘Doctor Who’ was still good.
This leads me to that unexpected flaw that wasn’t present as such at the time the film first appeared, namely that Andy Serkis is delivering Moffat asides in a Scottish accent, which suddenly sounds entirely too Peter Capaldi for my particular liking. The resemblance keeps jerking me slightly out of the film, and not in a good direction either.
But the biggest charge against the film, and not just made by the Guardian is that ultimately the decision to make three-dimensional cartoons leaves the look of the film suspended between cartoon and reality in a place that the eye cannot fully accept or allow because it is too much of both to ever form its own plausible existence. Naturally, I don’t wholly agree, or at least not enough to dislike the film, whose energy carries it over nearly all its hurdles, but I can understand the point and it’s not without merit.
Nevertheless, and despite the unconscionably long delays, I’m still looking forward to the sequel, though it’s going through an incredibly long gestation period. It’s supposed to be Prisoners of the Sun, an adaptation of ‘The Seven Crystal Balls’/’Prisoners of the Sun’, with ‘The Blue Lotus’ (and presumably ‘Tintin in Tibet’) as the third. Peter Jackson needs to get a move on though: people who grew up on Herge’s Adventures of Tintin aren’t going to be around for ever.